Artmaking is a means of storytelling. Often, artists play the role of storyteller. The narratives we know and choose to tell through art, no matter how explicitly or abstractly, are direct by-products of our culture, background, personal identities, and the communities and belief systems we participate in. Combind, these influences define one’s personal value system– so that even when an individual listens to or watches another individual’s story, they choose what to absorb and ignore. What I’m saying is that storytelling in all its forms is an inherently biased practice, informing both our subjective and collective realities. Why is it that the diversity of society (in all of its stories) most often gives way to a singular, dominant narrative?
These are the kinds of musings about stories, identities, and realities that You Must Not Stand in One Place, a multimedia group exhibition on view at Distillery Gallery (516 East 2nd Street, South Boston) until July 26, 2019, powerfully provokes. Its title appropriates the Igbo saying (a group of people from southeastern Nigeria) once and famously recited by the Nigerian novelist/poet and Igbo chieftain, Chinua Achebe. This excerpt from his 1994 interview with The Paris Review helps to communicate the full impact of the phrase:
…I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, This is it. Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing; the same person telling the story will tell it differently. I think of that masquerade in Igbo festivals that dances in the public arena. The Igbo people say, If you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place. The masquerade is moving through this big arena. Dancing. If you’re rooted to a spot, you miss a lot of the grace. So you keep moving, and this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told—from many different perspectives.
Couldn’t we all use a taste of this mentality in our current world? You Must Not Stand in One Place expands upon this crucial stance of empathy, exhibiting a rigorous variety of artistic perspectives which “tap into alternative worlds by creating grand and radical metanarratives of society,” as the curators write. This variety extends to the show’s selection of media—painting, sculpture, film/video, fashion, and more—and the range of conceptual approaches exhibited, so that there is something for everyone to love, connect with, and digest. In fact, the variety of the show is so impressive that it is equally overwhelming (and this is really my only critique)– that is, it’s definitely not an exhibition to rush through.
It was of the utmost importance for curators Sopheak Sam and Melissa Teng to unite artists of different circles, practices, identities, and career stages (both emerging and established) and to attempt to equally distribute the opportunity for exhibition. “It was really important for us to work with artists who didn’t just create to raise awareness or ‘start a conversation’ around an issue, but who created work that took a political position and moved discourse forward by proposing ‘movement’ of some sort — whether through humor, a future scenario, reimagining a medium, etc. I think it’s important to recognize the bravery of action in the face of often paralyzingly complex problems,” says co-curator Melissa Teng.
The artists featured tackle a number of relevant global concerns: everything from exposing and exploring social injustices, to grappling with climate change and its politics, to investigating their personal identities through memory and historical parallels. “Earlier on, it was [named] ‘alternate realities,’ says co-curator Sopheak Sam about the exhibition: “We were thinking about Afrofuturism and artists who work in that type of framework of world-building– artists who are looking to shift narratives, augment histories, and speculate futures. For me it’s such an exciting theme that not a lot of exhibitions I’ve seen have touched upon, and definitely not many from the local gallery scene [in Boston].” Indeed, You Must Not Stand is definitely one of the most inquisitive, cogent, and sincere art exhibitions that I’ve encountered in a while– but if you approach this show with passivity, it won’t carry the same weight. You Must Not Stand excels as a forward-thinking exhibition because it asks a lot more of its viewers, compelling them to learn (and even do their own research), empathize, speculate, and practice unbiased looking and listening. Contributing her media & tech design and academic-research background to the exhibition, co-curator Teng notes how “This show was really inspired by a branch of critical design called speculative design—creating work that is situated in a future and embedded with desired values that can be used to think critically about and shake up the present-day values ingrained in our everyday work and environments.”
Something that struck me about the exhibition is its lack of wall labels (opting for a space map instead). Curators Sopheak and Melissa were intent to keep the walls as “clean” as possible given the (delightful) crowdedness of the space. Additionally, I find that omitting this immediately-available interpretive material serves the show and its motives quite well: by liberating the works from any preconceived notions that may arise from reading an artwork’s title or its artist’s name, ergo challenging viewers to judge the quality of the work based solely on the work itself. Brief texts are provided only where context is necessary, like for Keith Morris Washington’s RJ Tyrone: Pine Woods; Hattiesburg, Mississippi (2002).
In oil on canvas, this painting references the fatal shooting and murder of the 33-year-old black farmer from Lawrence County (MS), the brutality of which was concealed in the end with a suicide verdict. The wall text omits the year of the incident (1935)– because for all we know, it could have taken place last week, given that issues of white supremacy, targeted violence, and ulteriorly-motivated court verdicts continue to run rampant in this country. Washington explores the imagery of the woods where Tyrone was murdered as if he were a witness of the event and now painting it from memory. In his painterly approach, trees blur together with expressive strokes of color to convey a sense of haunting movement. The same forest is rendered from different perspectives within confined quadrants which overlap each other, embodying the monstrous cover-up of this tragedy and the subsequent wiping of RJ Tyrone’s story from history.
Lina Maria Giraldo’s Identity Technology Storytelling (2017) also required interpretive text with its display due to its existence as a larger project. As part of the City of Boston’s Artist in Residency (AIR) Program, Giraldo worked with members of the Hyde Park community at the Boston Center for Youth and Family to learn electronics and coding together. The community members then created poetry using code (so cool!) and built video cameras, which they then used to interview the Hyde Park Community and promote intergenerational dialogue and storytelling.“I am really happy to share work from Giraldo in this show because her art is so rooted in community-building and creating art with communities,” says Teng.
Ryan Aasen’s installation, NSA (2015), extracted from his larger series of the same title, deals broadly with “the intersecting politics of networking, surveillance, human rights, and global identity,” as the artist writes. By “NSA,” Aasen refers to both the US National Security Agency and to the phrase “no strings attached,” meaning casual sex, while also denoting the lack of “strings” or regulation over the NSA’s surveillance tactics. As much as we like to think that we’re not being spied on by the government; to deny the idea of our private cell phone activity being fully accessible, this is exactly the kind of metadata that the NSA is rampantly collecting as they engage in cyber-warfare with other areas of the world like the Middle East. Aasen’s process was highly involved: in order to subvert surveillance via anonymity, he used burners (prepaid mobile phones) to interact with men in these highly-monitored areas of the world on Grindr, archiving their conversations. With the same sensibility as the NSA’s tactics, Aasen’s installation reduces these individuals to a pile of bricks; their Grindr profile picture is blurred, printed onto paper, and fastened around each brick with a zip-tie (likely a dual-reference to hand-cuffing and consumer technology packaging). The headphones that dangle above the brick pile play a simultaneous mix of obnoxious rave music and a human rights speech (co-curator Sam informs me that it is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who’s speaking—likely a quip about her numerous cybersecurity failures). It’s an admittedly hilarious combination; often the current song’s “bass-drop” will coincide sardonically with a moment of climax in the speech. This drowning-out of social-justice speak with a party soundtrack evokes feelings of denial, phoniness, and insincerity, poking fun at the idea of anyone ever actually protecting the rights of those who are oppressed–even those who are to be “trusted” with the security of this country and it’s individuals. Aasen’s NSA installation brings a distinct tone to You Must Not Stand In One Place, effectively blending humor, fear, and rich socio-political commentary.
Nash Glynn’s single-channel video, PLEASE SAVE MY BABY (Lover Earth) (2016), functions both as climate change commentary and as a self-portrait in which Glynn “explores the trans female form in relation to rapidly-changing, post-industrial ecologies,” as the artist writes. Done-up with bright-green body paint and hair, sitting immovable at dead-center without ever breaking eye-contact with the viewer, Glynn’s character seems intent to hold our attention– though it is unclear if she intends to distract from, assimilate into, or emphasize the nearly-vacant and illusory landscape behind her. Look closer and these sweeping green hills sport a phallic image (literally), while Glynn’s frozen posture sardonically echoes a distinctly “feminine” pose from classical paintings of the Madonna & Child or Venus. Perhaps this volatile juxtaposition evokes the reductiveness of the gender binary and a predominantly cis-gender society, calling into question who’s left out. Artificiality is grossly prominent throughout the work: Glynn’s stark appearance, the dubbed chirping of birds, a flat-green background, “cardboard-cutout” trees, cotton-candy clouds, and Glynn’s muffled voice-recording. All are reflexive of the piece’s green-screen production aspect, intended to erode any sense of reality that may have been left in this artwork’s universe. As Glynn pleads the viewer to save her baby, there’s something about the tone of her voice that’s insincere and unconvincing. In my interpretation, the piece seems to mock how we romanticize the drama of climate change without any call to action, hyping up the apocalypse yet being stranded in a state of blatant denial of the future– an attitude akin to that of Glynn’s character, who dreamily states, “We will always have yesterday…” PLEASE SAVE MY BABY creates a profoundly interesting and uncomfortable space where “utopia and dystopia coexist,” as the artist writes.
I mean it when I say that experiencing You Must Not Stand In One Place had a seriously positive effect on my own sense of global, socio-political and personal consciousness. Designed to provide visitors with a comfortable and critical space to reflect upon their own identity and position in society, the exhibition strives to 1) “overcome inertia and activate movement” and 2) “challenge what we can strive for in our current world,” as the curators write. Curated by two interdisciplinary artists, arts professionals, and overall passionate and hard-working individuals, You Must Not Stand marks Sopheak Sam and Melissa Teng’s first organization of a major exhibition. Due to limited funding, Sopheak and Melissa dipped generously into their own pockets to actualize their ambitions for the show, bringing these artworks and artists together and making these important conversations possible. They will be hosting a closing reception on Saturday, July 20th at 7pm. On view until July 26, this incredible exhibition and its curators deserve all the recognition.